GREEN BAY, Wis. — The return of Donald Driver might be a positive for the Green Bay Packers in 2012, but the decision to bring the franchise’s all-time leading receiver back to for a 14th season could be costly to the team’s future at the position.
The potential of wide receivers Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel — both on the Packers’ practice squad last season — has caught the attention of other NFL teams. Late in the 2011 season, Gurley was offered a spot on the Minnesota Vikings active roster, and Borel was given the same opportunity with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each player turned down his opportunity with the hope of earning a roster spot in Green Bay in 2012.
But with all five of the Packers’ top wide receivers now returning after Driver restructured his contract, Gurley and Borel are in danger of being left off Green Bay’s active roster again this season.
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And that would not sit well with the two young receivers.
“Oh yeah, opening day, my goal is to be playing,” Gurley said. “Last year, I took it as a learning experience, but I’m very hungry and I’m excited about being out there and playing football somewhere.”
Somewhere — that is the key word. Therefore, Gurley isn’t limiting his options to the Packers.
“I had the opportunity to go to Minnesota, so it showed that in the NFL, I belong,” Gurley said. “I just have to continue to prove myself day in, day out, and how the chips fall, God willing, I’ll be playing on Sundays.”
Gurley, 24, went undrafted in 2011 after his collegiate career at South Carolina. But at 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, he provides the height and build that most of the Packers’ receivers lack. Gurley would be the tallest player at the position if he made the team.
That’s what makes Gurley so valuable and what makes the possibility of losing him to another team such a delicate situation for general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy.
“Our roster will be challenged as far as six receivers,” McCarthy said. “But with the way we play, you could make a legitimate argument for six receivers with the overall roster. Special teams will play a big part on which positions are heavier than the others. It always does.”
Even if six wide receivers make the final roster, that still means choosing between Gurley and Borel.
Borel, 23, is a very intriguing prospect. After playing quarterback and punter at Utah State, Borel converted to wide receiver before going undrafted in 2011. At 6-foot, 199 pounds, Borel doesn’t have the unique body type that separates him from the group, like Gurley does. However, Borel is a very well-rounded athlete who possesses all the skills of a receiver who should be playing on Sundays, not spending a second season on a practice squad.
“If you’re on a practice squad, you’re available,” Borel said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. But when that time comes, then that’ll be my decision. I’ll have to decide what I want to do.”
Though Gurley is the more outspoken of the two, Borel has discussed his situation at length with his good friend and teammate, running back Alex Green.
“Just talking to Borel a couple times about it, he’s just focusing on him, doing what he can to get better every day,” Green said. “If that’s enough for the team, then there you go. If not, then he’ll try somewhere else.”
Like Gurley, the idea of going to another team is very real for Borel.
“He does want to be around here,” Green said of Borel. “He feels comfortable here. He knows the system, knows the plays. He just wants to play.”
Had the Packers decided against restructuring Driver’s contract and allowing the 37-year-old veteran to leave in free agency, it’s conceivable that both Gurley and Borel could have made Green Bay’s active roster in 2012 as the No. 5 and No. 6 receivers.
But with Driver back, one or both of them might be faced with a decision of another year on the practice squad in Green Bay or going to another team. It appears unlikely that either would choose to stick around as Packers if presented those two options.
“My goal this year is to be playing Week 1,” Gurley reiterated. “That’s why I left college early, because I felt that I was ready to play on Sundays.”
The question isn’t really whether Gurley or Borel would actually be better than Driver for this upcoming season, but at Driver’s age, it could turn out to sacrifice the future at wide receiver with the focus being short-term.
And that is a very un-Thompson-like decision. Typically, Thompson is all about the youth movement and frequently lets veterans leave in order to give the younger players an opportunity.
However, Driver’s return is also injury insurance. If Greg Jennings or Jordy Nelson suffer an injury in training camp or during the preseason, having Driver on the roster becomes a huge benefit.
Plus, it is possible that Thompson can find a way to keep Gurley and Borel around for another full season, even if one or both of them does not make the active roster. But it will be difficult.
“At the end of the day, the front office will make a decision,” Gurley said. “The only thing we can do is just leave it all on the field.”